What’s the point of ICBF if we’ve to go back to ge­net­ics of 20 years ago?

Irish Independent - Farming - - Comment -

bulls slaugh­tered in Ire­land had risen ev­ery year since 2002, from just un­der 40,000 up to a high of 209,000 in 2012. This rep­re­sented al­most 30pc of the over­all male kill.

The num­ber of young bulls slaugh­tered last year fell by over 10pc and the kill con­tracted sharply dur­ing De­cem­ber and Jan­uary.

For the past few years, the fac­to­ries have in­sisted that they wanted these young bulls to be closer to 16 months in­stead of 18 months. It was not easy, but farm­ers adapted. Now we are be­ing told that they also need to be less than 380kg.

To the out­side eye, that change from 16 months and 380kg may not look all that dif­fer­ent to 18 months and 400kg up. But dig and lit­tle deeper and it’s a dif­fer­ent story.

CAS­TRAT­ING

We sold some young con­ti­nen­tal bulls around Christ­mas. They were un­der 16 months and weighed 407kg with just enough fat cover.

These an­i­mals are not bred to be fin­ished at low weights. Any kind of a set­back and it won’t work.

The mar­ket is cur­rently telling us to do one of two things. Ei­ther we should be cas­trat­ing all our males and go back to fin­ish­ing them as steers.

Or we should com­pletely change what we pro­duce and move to an ear­lier ma­tur­ing an­i­mal. This would take at least three-and-a-half years to com­plete.

The lo­gis­tics, eco­nom­ics and the per­sonal cost of dis­pos­ing a herd that has taken a life­time to build is one thing.

But what is to say that the de­mand will not be for some­thing dif­fer­ent in the fu­ture?

What are the chances that the in­dus­try will change more in the next 40 months than it has in the past 12?

That is the ker­nel of the prob­lem. It is not that the spec has changed again - it’s that it is al­ways chang­ing. The fac­to­ries al­ways want what we don’t have. As soon as we do have it, they no longer want it.

As bull beef gets older, the view is that it be­comes less ap­peal­ing to the con­sumer. But i f t he qual­ity of 18-month bull beef was not a prob­lem a year ago, up un­til the in­dus­try was hit with the horse­meat scan­dal, why is it now? Else­where in Europe, 18 months is not an is­sue.

This is where the su­per­mar­kets come into the equa­tion, es­pe­cially those in Bri­tain, which cur­rently ac­counts for more than 50pc of our ex­ports. They ap­par­ently want bulls un­der 16 months, but what is sacro­sanct about this fig­ure?

Does spec re­ally mat­ter or is it just an ar­ti­fi­cial tool, per­haps as a dis­play of power that con­trols price? Could the next move be an age limit of 14 months or even 12? And will the weight limit con­tinue to drop?

I would sug­gest that there is some­thing im­moral in all of this.

The pop­u­la­tion of the world is grow­ing and, with it, the de­mand for food and the de­mand for meat. Pro­duc­ing young bulls at 16 months and 380kg may be at­tain­able, but is it sus­tain­able?

Surely the tar­get should be try­ing to pro­duce more from less rather than less from more? While the Min­is­ter of Agri­cul­ture has fi­nally moved to meet the pro­ces­sors, this has be­come a broader po­lit­i­cal is­sue in which he must have a role.

There are signs that this bot­tle­neck is al­ready start­ing to clear. But when it does, many farm­ers will be left stom­ach­ing hefty losses.

What then f or

Ir i s h

beef pro­duc­tion? There are a lot of ques­tions to be an­swered.

We have al­ways had a pol­icy of culling the worst five cows in the herd on the ba­sis of per­for­mance. Now we won­der whether we shouldn’t have been culling the best five.

Apolo­gies to tra­di­tional breed­ers be­cause I know this is an over-sim­pli­fi­ca­tion.

But where now for ICBF and what’s the point of its work if we have to go back to the ge­net­ics of 20 years ago?

SYS­TEM

What about Ire­land’s Ori­gin Green im­age which is built on a low-in­put grass-based sys­tem?

And how does this fit in with the tar­gets of Food Har­vest 2020? If con­ven­tional beef farm­ing is wiped out, will this gap be filled by the likes of the cross­bred Hol­stein bulls be­ing sold last week for a fiver?

It was re­ported in these pages last week that cat­tle born in the South are be­ing heav­ily dis­counted when of­fered for sale in North­ern Ire­land.

How, in a ‘free’ mar­ket, can this be al­lowed to hap­pen? An­other one for the Min­is­ter.

We all know the names of the Ir­ish meat plant bosses. Do any of us know the names of the bosses of the main Bri­tish su­per­mar­ket chains, Tesco, Asda, Mor­risons or Sains­bury’s?

Do any of them have the courage and the wis­dom to stand up and say they will take meat from young bulls aged up to 18 months? Would they talk to farm­ers? Maybe a bet­ter bet would be to see if they would refuse to talk to our Min­is­ter for Agri­cul­ture.

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